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Dividing the country won’t bridge the digital divide

Jan 29, 2018
In The News

For most Americans, a high-speed broadband connection is an essential part of life.  High-speed broadband means stronger small businesses, more jobs, and a powerful economy.  But, for millions of Americans in both rural and urban areas, that fundamental connection is still out of reach. To connect those who are being left behind, we need bold leadership and innovative thinking on the issue of broadband deployment.

Until recently, increasing broadband deployment had traditionally been a bipartisan cause.  In the last Congress, Republicans and Democrats worked together to develop new approaches to improving connectivity nationwide.  

At the beginning of this Congress, Democratic members of the Energy and Commerce Committee unveiled a series of new proposals that would bring job-creating broadband connections to nearly every American, whether they live in urban broadband deserts or remote rural lands. All year long, Republican leadership refused to work with us on pushing forward any of these proposals, and refused to put anything forward themselves. Only now are we finally seeing some Republican proposals that are simply not sufficient.

The bedrock of our plan is an ambitious $40 billion investment to bring high-speed broadband to Americans in every state. This funding will provide for better broadband that will help power the American economy forward.

Any serious broadband infrastructure plan must include this foundational investment because of an unfortunate reality – modern broadband networks are very expensive. Companies deploying today’s state-of-the-art networks are already building out to areas that are profitable. The areas being left behind do not yet provide what companies deem an adequate return on their investment. Based on this dynamic, any plan that does not change the fundamental economic calculus for network providers is simply window dressing.

Today, more than 10 million urban Americans and 23 million rural Americans lack access to broadband networks. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that it will cost $40 billion to build out to 98 percent of the country and $80 billion to install broadband nationwide.

Our infrastructure plan provides critical support for the next-generation communications networks. We are proposing to:

  • Invest $40 billion to ensure every state gets access to new, high-speed networks.
  • Mandate the FCC to collect better data about our networks because, unfortunately, the FCC makes too many decisions based on faulty information.
  • Coordinate existing subsidy programs to make sure funds are spent efficiently.
  • Require the FCC to spend more time focusing on the forgotten areas of our cities that broadband providers have passed over.
  • Support cities and towns across the country in forging new public-private partnerships with service providers.
  • Ensure that we do not forget Indian country.

The Republican proposals announced to date would turn Americans against each other by picking winners and losers.  They pit rural communities against cities, industry against local control of local lands, and increased coverage against the sanctity of our public spaces.

This is simply not the innovative thinking needed to improve our internet service.  We do not need to rob from our cities to improve rural broadband.  We do not need to let corporations deface local historic sites to improve wireless coverage.  And we do not need to destroy our natural landscapes to build better internet services.

The Republican proposals also simply will not solve the problem. We’ve repeatedly heard from both Republican and Democratic witnesses in our committee that government will have to make real investments in broadband to build out to unserved parts of the country. 

The Republican plan will not improve deployment, but will hurt workers and the economy.  The Democratic plan rejects the false choices Republicans seek, and instead proposes that we can improve our broadband networks and strengthen our economy without tearing everything else down.

The lynchpin to a successful broadband initiative is something some Republicans would like us to move past — strong net neutrality and privacy protections.  The value our networks bring to Americans is dependent on them being able to use the internet without threats to their personal information.  We will not rest until we restore the safeguards that make the internet great.

When it comes to investing in our country’s broadband infrastructure, Republicans should put aside their stale proposals, and work with us to truly improve Americans’ access to high-speed broadband.  We should be working together to find ways to improve our communications networks so they can connect more people, instead of finding new ways to push us all apart.

Frank Pallone, Jr., represents New Jersey’s Sixth Congressional District and is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.